February 2018

Philanthropist Ruth Lilly dies

Mark Zelonis (right) presents a vase of flowers to Ruth Lilly at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The flowers were cut from the gardens at Oldfields, a Lilly family estate on the IMA grounds.(C) Photo courtesy Mark Zelonis

Mark Zelonis (right) presents a vase of flowers to Ruth Lilly at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2002, upon completion of Oldfields. The flowers were cut from the gardens at Oldfields, a Lilly family estate on the IMA grounds. (C) Photo courtesy Mark Zelonis

Indianapolis philanthropist Ruth Lilly, the only living heir of Col. Eli Lilly, founder of the pharmeceutical firm, left quite a mark on the gardening scene. She died Dec. 30, 2009, at age 94.

Her $2.2 million gift a few years ago endowed Mark Zelonis’ position at the Indianapolis Musuem of Art as the Ruth Lilly Director of Oldfields & Horticulture.

The thorough and meticulous restoration of Oldfields, the former estate of the Josiah K. Lilly Jr., grandson of Col. Lilly, could not have been possible without her direct involvement, Zelonis said.  “Its gathering National Historic Landmark status is a tribute to the site’s significance and also to the quality of the work done. It also garnered the IMA an Award of Merit, the highest honor from the American Association for State and Local History.”

Zelonis, who has been at the IMA since 1997, is responsible for the management, maintenance and development of museum’s 152 acres of gardens and grounds, with special emphasis on the 26-acre historic property of Oldfields. Ruth Lilly and her brother, Josiah K. Lilly III, the children of Josiah K. Lilly Jr., gave the Oldfields estate to the IMA in 1966. In addition to managing the horticulture division, Zelonis is a project director for the IMA’s Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park.

Since the early 1960s, Lilly has given more than $20 million to the IMA, primarily for support of Oldfields. She is an IMA trustee and a member of the Horticultural Society, Zelonis said. In addition to the arts, Lilly also supports health education, youth programs, and historic preservation in the community.

“Visitors who stroll our grounds, ride bikes on our paths, play on our lawns, and tour our beautiful campus have Mrs. Lilly and her family to thank,” Zelonis said at the time of the announcement. “We’ve been given a wonderful gift to care for, and we aim to be the best stewards a property such as this deserves.”

Her family’s estate, “will live on as testament to their refined tastes and generosity.  The Indianapolis Museum of Art would be a completely different institution had she and her brother not given this magnificent 52-acre site to the Art Association of Indianapolis back in the late 1960’s.  The city and its people should be forever grateful,” he said.

“On a personal level, I will miss the opportunity to share in her birthday and Christmas celebrations at her home, ‘Twin Oaks.’  Two of my proudest possessions are compilations of her poetry and artwork. From the journals she kept as a young girl, I could tell she was a keen observer of nature, cutting out and saving images of birds, plants, and insects.  I’ll always treasure her Christmas card of a few years ago which featured an image of Oldfields she had recently created,” Zelonis said.

Here’s her obituary from the Indianapolis Star. One of her largest gifts, and maybe the most surprising, went to the Poetry Foundation a few years ago.

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